Note: Like "Krateros and Hephaistion fight," it seems everybody has to write a "Hephaistion is dead" story, so this is mine. Remember, they're soldiers and they cuss like it.
"Ho, ho, men! Starboard, starboard, damnit!"
Alexander bellowed orders from the rear of the lead battleship in the Royal Fleet. Ponderously at first, then with increasing speed, the five-tiered quinquireme keeled right, sliding just past the other quinquireme approaching dead at them, Nearchos in the prow, shaking a fist at his king. "Blasted cheat! You were supposed to go to fucking port!"
"Never do what you're supposed to do!" Alexander yelled back, grabbing an apple from the wooden tub to fling it with all his might. It didn't hit his admiral but came close. Apple in his own hand, Nearchos slung it so that Alexander had to duck.
Marines aboard both craft were lobbing apples with wild abandon. Old apples, the last from stores, most had worms or other bugs, making them unfit to eat but good for a little fun, and to add spice to naval maneuvers. The men needed something to smile about in the creeping heat.
Alexander just needed something to smile about, period.
Next week, Hephaistion's pyre would be complete.
Next week he would hold funeral games, and Hephaistion would burn: an inescapable coda to this liminal state in which he'd existed since last autumn. No embalmed body to visit where, if he squinted, he might pretend Hephaistion just sleeping.
But he knew he wasn't. Dead bodies didn't look asleep. Dead bodies looked fucking dead. Furthermore, Hephaistion had died in agony, something the embalmers hadn't been able to erase entirely from his desiccated expression.
Alexander had asked them for a final, full report. Greek physicians wouldn't open a corpse; it was sacrilege. For Egyptians, however, embalming was a holy art, so they'd seen inside the body and Alexander had wanted to know what had killed Hephaistion. The fever had been improving, although that last morning, Hephaistion had mentioned a pain in his stomach. He'd thought it hunger. Or perhaps he'd guessed what was coming and had pretended it hunger to convince Alexander to go away. After all, he, like the king, had seen men afflicted by the Nervous Fever before and knew how it ended for an unlucky few. He would've realized that, if he'd reached such a phase, there was no stopping Hermes's visit to take him to Hades's Hall.
And indeed, the Egyptian priests had reported that Hephaistion had perished of a split gut, abdomen full of blood and messier things. Hephaistion's contorted face and extended, bruised abdomen had told the king the dying hadn't been easy. Perhaps Zeus had been kind to spare Alexander, but he should have been there. He couldn't have done anything to halt it, but he could have held his friend's hand. At the very least, the damn doctor should have recognized the symptoms of tenderness in the belly and informed Alexander. That he hadn't, either from negligence or incompetence, that he'd left Hephaistion to die alone in mortal agony, was why Alexander had crucified him.
He could still see Hephaistion's last expression. He would never forget it. Nor would he ever forgive himself for not being there in that final hour.
His arm had been raised, arched back in the act of throwing. Now it fell, and the apple fell too, rolling across the deck to drop into one of the oar galleys. Alexander watched the boats loaded with men, howling and laughing and pelting each other.
It was hot, a steamy-humid late spring day in the reedy waters of the shallow Euphrates. Yet Alexander was snow-cold.
Nearchos, who'd been aiming for him again, seemed to guess that a shadow had crossed his soul and lowered his arm, too. Instead of throwing the apple, he brought up his fist and tapped his heart twice in salute as the boat snaked further up the murky river water.
Alexander shook himself out of his funk and shouted, "Heel starboard! Come around again, you lazy fuckers!"
"Ack! Ptht!" Hephaistion spat and coughed like a gagging cat, shaking his head and wiping his mouth with the back of a hand. "Shit! It's full of goddamn worms!" He gagged again, as if he might vomit.
The other boys laughed, but in that nervous way which suggested they were glad it wasn't one of them to have discovered the shipment of apples from Pella was rotten. "Why didn't you look first?" Alexander asked, seizing the apple from his friend's hand to inspect it. His face wrinkled at the sight of the core where myriad small worms wriggled.
"The skin's fine!" Hephaistion replied, voice weak. He was still gagging.
The skin did appear fine. But the bottom showed where something had eaten its way in, then had apparently laid eggs. Alexander turned it up to show Hephaistion. "Check the whole thing."
"Rub it in."
"Not trying." He reached out to grip Hephaistion's shoulder. "You saved me from making the same mistake." The others were checking their own apples, several tossing the fruit away with expressions of disgust. "That whole barrel will have to be discarded."
"Give them to the horses," Leonnatos suggested.
"We don't want them getting colic and foundering," Hephaistion said, voice steadier now, recovering from his gagging fit.
Leonnatos glared. "I wasn't going to feed them the whole damn barrel at once, dickhead. We can roll it in there and leave it till they're gone."
But Alexander studied the apple-with-a-bite-out-of-it still in his hand. "I've a better idea. Let's use them for a game of siege, build some makeshift catapults. We work at battle drill all the time, but sieges are more common than pitched battles. We can stand the practice."
"Trust you to turn rotten apples into fucking war games," Perdikkas muttered, but in good humor.
The night before the funeral, Alexander made one final visit to Hephaistion's body. He brought a pillow, blanket, wineskin, and cup—the cup Hephaistion had commissioned for him years ago with the boys in the bottom. He didn't plan to leave again until the rest arrived at dawn to carry out the bier. Alexander would drive the cart to where the pyre stood waiting.
"Agapete, you'd fucking strangle me for the amount of money I spent on your funeral," he told the body as he poured himself wine. "You'd have sent me an 'expenditure denied' note."
When Hephaistion had risen high enough to take on full oversight of the king's exchequer, Alexander had received his first "expenditure denied" notice. Shocked and certain it must be some sort of mistake, he'd barged into Hephaistion's staff tent inside the newly constructed walls of Alexandria Eschate, to clear up the error.
"It's not an error," Hephaistion had told him.
Gobsmacked, Alexander had just stared. "But it's for the spring Dionysia! We may be at the back of fucking nowhere, but unlike my impious father, I do observe the damn festivals."
"You don't need to import 600 goddamn amphorai of Chian wine all the way from the coast. The Persians make perfectly good wine. We can bring some from Ekbatana. Nor do you need to gild a 200-foot dick for a parade float. That's the most ridiculous thing I've heard. This week, at least. By the Twins, this town barely has a central road yet and your guilded dick would take up most of it. And people call mine big. At least I don't flash it every chance I get."
Hephaistion had continued, mercilessly dissecting Alexander's festival plans, or really, trimming them down to size. "The men need this festival, Phaistonaki," Alexander had tried one last time, employing guilt when protests, whining, and even a hissy fit hadn't worked.
"They need a festival, I agree. But if you want to throw around money, why don't you import 600 pounds of leather and a dozen cordwainers to make them new shoes?" Reaching down, he'd pulled off one of his own sandals to raise it and show the ragged state it was in. "These are my last wearable pair and unlike me, most of the men couldn't afford three when they started out."
Guilt cut both ways.
In the end, Alexander got his 600 amphorai of wine, but from Ekbatana, and Hephaistion got his 600 pounds of leather and cordwainers. Hephaistion had been right, too. The men had cheered louder for the shoes than the wine, and not because the latter wasn't Chian.
"You always thought I was profligate, but it's required of kings," he told the body. "I gave the artists and athletes employment, and the men need a festival. It's not as if I'll go broke any time soon, even without you to safeguard my treasury."
Abruptly, he broke down and sobbed. "You son of a bitch. Why aren't you here to safeguard my damn treasury?"
"You paid what for a pair of korthornoi?" Riding sandals. "Did you lose your mind?"
"They're a pair of fucking sandals! They'll be dirty red soon enough."
"Red is my favorite color."
Hephaistion had just rolled his eyes. "You're a goddamn peacock, Alekos."
Alexander had grinned. "You like it when I dress fancy. Admit it."
Hephaistion hadn't been able to argue because he did, in fact, like it when Alexander dressed fancy. Alexander could read his appreciation in the dilation of his pupils. Sometimes his body spoke louder than he did.
The red korthornoi had cost rather a lot from his royal allowance, but later, Hephaistion had taken him wearing nothing but those sandals, so Alexander thought the investment worth it. They'd look nice on parade days, too.
Persians believed fire divine. Formless and ever-changing, it gave a face to their highest god, Ahura Mazda. Alexander supposed him not so far from Zeus, whose lightning was fire, too.
Yet today—the day of Hephaistion's funeral—morning rains prevailed. If storms in upper Mesopotamia were common enough in spring, Babylon was too far south, fields dependent on river floods from mountain melt-off, not rain. The Chaldeans and other soothsayers had been all aflutter, declaring the event a remarkable sign, but whether good or bad, they couldn't make up their minds.
Alexander just thought Zeus as reluctant as he was to see Hephaistion burn.
Almost, he used it as an excuse to cancel the ceremony. He could install Hephaistion's body here in Babylon, erect something to rival the great ziggurat of Marduk, although Zeus-Ammon had said Hephaistion could be revered only as a hero.
Fuck Zeus-Ammon. Alexander would make Hephaistion a god.
Then the morning squalls passed, the sun came out, and a proper piety returned Alexander's sanity and a respect for divine decree.
"It's time to let him go," Perdikkas said, leaning against a wall in the room where Hephaistion's body lay in state. "Remember Patroklos, remonstrating Achilles for his rites."
"I don't need you to quote Homer at me. I'll let him go. I just…."
"Don't want to. I don't want to, either, and I wasn't in love with him. But he was a good friend."
"I talk to him. Every night. Even if it's just for a few moments. Wherever his body is, I come to talk to him. How will I do that when he's ash?"
"Talk to the sky. He's not in there, Alexander. It's a body, not Hephaistion. He's gone wherever we all go."
"Elysion. Ammon said so. He's in the Elysion Fields, waiting for me."
"Yeah? Well, don't be too eager to join him. We need you here."
Alexander glanced up from a study of Hephaistion's face. "I've got Arabia to win. For him."
"You've got Arabia to win for you. Then where? I notice Krateros hasn't left yet for Macedonia. He's still sitting in Cilicia constructing a fleet he won't need in Pella. You never meant him to replace Antipatros, did you? What's the fleet for?"
Alexander thought Perdikkas annoyed at being left out of strategic plans, even though he now commanded Hephaistion's Hipparchy. Commanding Hephaistion's Hiparchy didn't make him Hephaistion. He didn't get to know everything. In these last years, Alexander had learned the value of keeping his designs close to his chest. Aside from Hephaistion, he no longer trusted anyone implicitly. Not Perdikkas, Leonnatos, Krateros, Ptolemy, Peukestis, and damn sure not Seleukos, whom Hephaistion had despised. Not his mother, either. Turn, turn, and turn again. He was alone now. He was finally, completely alone.
Looking again at Hephaistion on the bier, he thought: How can I do this without you?
Did he even want to?
It was a novel thought, one that had never before really occurred to him in a serious way. He'd breathed the conquest of Asia for as long as he could remember, first as his father's dream, and then as his own after Philip's death. At no point had he ever stopped to ask himself, "Is that what I want?"
Although Hephaistion had.
"Asia. Just imagine, Phaistonaki! To walk where Achilles walked. To see Troy. To see Babylon. They say its blue gate is the height of eight men. And Xerxes's great hall at Persepolis has a hundred columns of imported Lebanese cedar."
Alexander had been weaving in and out of the white columns of the Nymphaion stoa, hands gripping marble as he swung his weight first one way then the other. Now he stopped to look back at his friend seated on a bench. Hephaistion grinned at him through a tangle of curly black hair. "I don't think you want to fight a war. I think you just want to sight-see."
"Of course I want to fight a war! We've got to pay the shitheads back for burning our cities."
Hephaistion shrugged. "I suppose. Personally, I'd rather just travel." He squinted up at the westering sun, then back to Alexander. "Do you ever wish you weren't a prince? We could hire a boat and run away to Egypt. Or maybe Sicily and become pirates. Follow Odysseus."
It was such a startling suggestion, Alexander had to remember to shut his mouth. "Odysseus was lost."
"Maybe. But he sure didn't seem to be in a big hurry to get home. I think he enjoyed being lost. If you could go anywhere, where would you go?"
"To Asia!" Alexander replied. Then he cocked his head. "Where would you go?"
"I'd go wherever you went."
"What if you didn't have me?"
"If I didn't have you, I'd be more lost than Odysseus."
Grinning, Alexander meandered back between columns to bend and kiss him. "You have me."
"Then I guess we'll go to Asia."
He'd never told Alexander where he'd really wanted to go, and now it was too late.
Alexander had brought a fresh wineskin to the funeral. It was the only way he'd get through it. Briefly, he wished for the stronger sura of India, although it tasted horrible to him. He didn't care, just wanted to be as drunk as Dionysos as he followed Hephaistion's body on its bier. The seven remaining Bodyguards carried it from the funeral cart. This was the final march for the two of them, the end of their story. Twenty years, only to see it all fucking burn.
They passed inside a gate between carved ships on the lowest tier of the pyre. There, at the center, was a cleverly wrought lift that, when cranked, would elevate the platform until it reached the top where it would lock into place inside a rectangle of hollow sirens. Before they could raise it, however, he hacked off a lock of hair to tuck it into Hephaistion's hands crossed on his breast, just as Achilles had done for Patroklos. Of course he'd cut off all his hair immediately after the death, and it was only lately back to any sort of decent shape, but he didn't care. Hephaistion had loved his hair, called him Khrusion, Golden Boy. There was a lot of gray in the blond now but Hephaistion should have it anyway. For himself, he took Hephaistion's seal ring, the one with the octopus in lapis. He put it on his own thumb. Nobody else would wear that ring. There was only one Khilliarkhos Oktopos.
Bending, he kissed his lips a final time, unconcerned with whom was watching. Nor did he care that the flesh under his own was bone-dry and no more than sun-warm. No life. No breath. The body smelled of the spices and natron the Egyptians used to preserve it, but in the past months, he'd grown used to that. He'd forgotten what Hephaistion, living, had smelled like. He could still recall the sound of his voice, though, or his laugh when he was especially tickled by something, wild and spontaneous.
Stepping back, Alexander let the engineers crank the lift. He followed it up with his gaze. He wanted to say, "Stop!" He wanted to order them to bring it back down but bit his lips to keep the words inside his mouth. He tasted blood.
Exiting to the pyre front, he made the required libations and first sacrifice to Hephaistion as a hero, then listened to the lament sung from atop the massive, elaborate pyre. Around the base were 240 boats facing outward with archers and hoplites aboard; the foremost sported an octopus climbing the side. Above the boats were torches with eagles and snakes, and above that a hunt of wild animals, then a battle of centaurs, then lions and bulls, and finally, Macedonian and Persian arms. Cresting everything were hollow sirens housing four singers, 130 cubits above the crowd gathered to attend. The gold gilding boats and animals and human figures glinted in the sun amid bright paint.
It really was a gaudy thing. Hephaistion would've hated it. But funerals weren't for the dead, and Alexander needed the entire world to know what Hephaistion had meant to him. What he'd lost. The pyre was a spectacle to his grief.
When the laments were finished, those gathered had to wait until the singers had climbed down and were safely away. Then Alexander stepped forward with the first torch.
The pyre's wood was still damp from rain, but the sun was hot, and the wood had been soaked in a ransom of oil. It didn't take long before it all became a tower of flame.
Fortified by wine or not, Alexander collapsed in the Babylonian sand. Nobody even tried to stand him back up, perhaps from pity, or perhaps because they recognized the futility.
He thought again: How can I do this without you?
And he knew the answer now. He didn't want to.
Without Hephaistion, empire was meaningless. From the start, this had been their adventure. Alexander might wear the diadem, but Hephaistion had stood at his side from the outset. Two souls in one body. Two destinies perfectly aligned. Conquering Asia had been their mission, not his alone. Hephaistion had told him once that he'd be more lost than Odysseus without Alexander. Now, Alexander was lost without Hephaistion.
Staring up at the towering inferno consuming a massive work of art, he understood it as an encomium for his entire career. Fire and ash. He had unbelievable Ploutos: wealth. He had undying Kleos: fame. Yet he was completely alone. Without Philia, what did any of it mean?
Phorutos. Debris in the wind. Ash.
Perdikkas had warned him not to be in a hurry to join Hephaistion, but suddenly, Alexander could hardly wait.
Still on his knees, face down to the Earth, he whispered a quiet prayer to the Fates, drawing his dagger to give them a sacrifice of blood. Red wept onto the sand with his tears. "Allotters, take me, too. Please, Lachesis, I pray that you shorten whatever you measured out at my birth, and Atropos, have pity and cut my thread early. I know it an unusual request. Most men beg for more of life. Yet I can't bear more. My heart is dead, the other half of me gone. I want to follow wherever he went: to Elysion, as Ammon promised, or to Hades, or even to Tartaros. Just rejoin us. Please. I beg of you."
The glaring-bright sun of Mesopotamia was momentarily eclipsed by a bank of clouds, stragglers perhaps from the morning's unseasonable shower. Yet Alexander understood the omen and wept harder.
"Alexander!" Philip called his son into the largest andron, or dining room, in the Pella palace. Here, he typically heard formal cases and conducted other official business. Alexander had been warned in advance of today's significance, and his mother had dressed him accordingly to receive his Syntrophoi, the royal companions of a prince. It marked his new status as Philip's likely heir. He wore a tunic of chalked-white linen bordered with red, his favorite color, and his yellow cloak had a border of Tyrian purple.
Instead of a dining couch, his father occupied his throne. Off to one side stood about a dozen boys, all roughly his age, sons of Royal Companions and advisors. Several, he already knew: Leonnatos, a cousin through his paternal grandmother; Derdas of Elimeia, related to one of his father's wives; Hektor, Parmenion's youngest son; and Perdikkas, a royal from Orestis. Others he knew by reputation only, but one caught his attention—taller than average, lanky, with curly black hair and a dark olive complexion. He was pretty, and Alexander wondered if that was why his father had included him, grooming him to become one of Philip's Boys. He stood towards the back, watching everything with an assessing gaze, neither seeking attention nor trying to avoid it.
"Introduce yourselves," Philip ordered, and the boys all blurted names, each competing to be first in the prince's attention, except for the dark-haired boy. Philip had to prompt him. "Go ahead, Amyntoros."
"I'm Hephaistion," he said, turning dark eyes on Alexander.
Their gazes met and Alexander's heart was pierced. Could someone fall in love instantly? Alexander thought he might just have.
Later, when they all trooped down to the exercise field, Hephaistion approached him. His expression was still cautious, but he held out something bright and red. "Want an apple? They're my favorite."
"Mine, too," Alexander said, taking the fruit and smiling.
Notes: The battle with apples on the Euphrates did occur. And I've assumed Hephaistion died of complications from typhoid, likely a perforated bowel, which would have been hella painful. It wouldn't require him to eat a whole chicken and drink a gallon of wine, either. If not a common complication, it's not unheard of in developing countries.
Yeah, the Greeks really did parade giant phalluses as parade floats during the spring Dionysia. At Ptolemy Philadelphos's in Alexandria in the 270s, he commissioned a 60 m. high giant, gilded one that it had to be jointed in the middle to make it around buildings.
There are references embedded here to my previous stories as I see them as a continuum. The wine cup in question is first described in "Facing Reality," the second in the Phoenician Trilogy. Hephaistion as Alexander's Hypaspistes Oktopos is also first mentioned in "Facing Reality," and his seal ring is given to him in "Medea." A "syntrophos" means specifically the agemate sons of Companions selected to be raised and educated with Temenid royal offspring, according to Waldemar Heckel.